In 2014, resolve to believe in free will!

A new year has begun, which means it’s time to brood over past failures and vow to improve ourselves: I will be less judgmental with my kids and more romantic with my girlfriend. I will stop binging on cookies and bad TV. (Why, oh why, do I keep watching Blacklist?) I will not assume that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil.
At this time of year, I like to hearten my fellow New Year Resolutionaries by defending the concept of free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will?
I never really thought about free will—or rather, I just took it for granted—until 1991, when I interviewed the late, great Francis Crick, who had switched from cracking the genetic code to solving the riddle of consciousness. With unnerving cheerfulness, Crick informed me that brain research is contradicting the notion of free will. Picking up a pen from his desk, he noted that even this simple act is underpinned and preceded by complex biochemical processes taking place below the level of consciousness.
“What you’re aware of is a decision, but you’re not aware of what makes you do the decision,” Crick said. “It seems free to you, but it’s the result of things you’re not aware of.” I frowned, and Crick chuckled at my distress.
Like many other free-will deniers, Crick cited experiments carried out in the 1980s by psychologist Benjamin Libet. Libet asked subjects to push a button at a moment of their choosing while noting the moment of the decision as displayed on a clock. An electroencephalograph monitoring the subjects’ brain waves revealed a spike of activity almost a second before the subjects decided to push the button. This and other findings show that our conscious decisions are literally afterthoughts, according to Crick.
But Crick was wrong. (I love saying that.) Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.
I’m more impressed by implant experiments that reveal how we fool ourselves into thinking we’re in control when we’re not. Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that handsome doctor! Psychologists call these delusional, after-the-fact explanations “confabulations.”
We all confabulate now and then. We passively do what we’re told to do—and believe what we’re told to believe—by parents, priests and political leaders, and we convince ourselves it’s our choice. We subvert our wills by deliberating insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, and by failing to act upon our resolutions. Sometimes we act out of compulsion—out of fear or rage—without thinking through the consequences of our actions. But just because our wills are weak doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
My view of free will resembles that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves lays out a sensible, down-to-earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.
Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.”
We, in turn, are dependent on free will. The concept of free will underpins all our ethics and morality; it forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or a divine plan. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Try telling prisoners in Guantanamo or Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.”
So in 2014, don’t just believe in free will. Cherish your choices!
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This essay is adapted from a column originally published on his Scientific American blog “Cross-check.”